Offender Management Bill
Baroness Stern (Crossbench)
I wish to speak to the amendments in my name and to support my noble friend on the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the noble Lord, Lord Judd—in that context, a friend—and my noble friend Lord Northbourne. I shall spend a few moments saying something about rehabilitation and what might be required for it to be a reality.
Over the past seven years, probation has been subjected to a series of experiments. We call them changes—my noble friend Lord Low was very helpful in taking us through them—but, in a sense, they have been experiments. The responsibility of the Probation Service to the locality in which it is placed has been reduced. It has been mechanised, with more of its work involving filling in forms about people. Those forms take several hours to complete and lead to a process being done mechanically. The results of the form are fed in and out comes an answer that tells you how risky the person whose form you are filling in is on a level of one to four.
As a result, the discretion of probation officers has been hugely reduced. They have also been required to work to national targets—another experiment. The last set of targets that I saw included a national requirement for 50,000 orders of unpaid work, 48,000 skills-for-life courses and 17,500 accredited programmes to be completed. These are then broken down by area and the probation officers have to carry them out; otherwise, I understand, they lose money the following year. The probation officers obviously have to find a certain number of people whom they can fit into their skills-for-life course quota, however relevant, or not, that course may be. That is but one example. So even the best probation officers, who are trying to use their professional skills to get to know a person, get to the bottom of their problems and build a relationship with them that could lead to change, must have at the back of their minds the question, "Could I manipulate this one into one of these courses, tick the box and help to reach our targets?" Is that what local communities want? I do not think so. We want the people in our Probation Service to use their training, discretion, patience and empathy to sort out troubled people from troubled families living in troubled neighbourhoods.
Last week, the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies published the Community Sentences Digest, which showed that offenders on community sentences experience severe social exclusion. No one will be surprised at this but I should like to get it on the record: nearly two-thirds of those on community sentences are below the literacy and numeracy levels expected of an 11 year-old; more than half are unemployed; just under a third have a problem finding somewhere to live; nearly half have mental health problems; close to a quarter have a drug problem; and almost half have an alcohol problem. To deal with that sort of population, I suggest that those in the Probation Service should not spend so much time on their computers, dividing human beings into tiers of riskiness; they need to do what is set out in the amendment of my noble friend Lord Judd.
Fergus McNeill, a distinguished academic from the Glasgow School of Social Work, has produced a very accessible summary of what all the research tells us about how people desist from crime. It is sometimes called "reducing reoffending"—an expression that I do not like because it is imprecise and does not really mean anything. Rather than plagiarise, I shall tell the Committee what Mr McNeill said. He makes eight points but tonight I shall give only two. However, if noble Lords come to further sittings of this Committee, they might get the rest.
The first is the need to build positive relationships. All the research shows that we need to recognise that the quality of a person's relationships, both personal and professional, is central to the process of giving up crime. Mr McNeill says:
"Like everyone else, offenders are most influenced to change (and not to change) by those closest to them and those whose advice they respect and whose support they value. Approaches to 'offender management' that fail to recognise the significance of the relational aspects of penal practice are unlikely to work".
The second point is the need to recognise the significance of social contexts. Fergus McNeill says that, in supporting people to give up crime,
"we need to look beyond the individual because achieving desistance involves and requires much more than changes within the individual. Trying only to 'fix' offenders can't and won't fix reoffending".
Giving up crime requires,
"new networks of support and opportunity in local communities and a new attitude",
in those communities,
"towards the reintegration of ex-offenders".
I submit that we need to get probation officers away from their computers and out of their city-centre offices, where they sit and wait for people who have had to take three different buses and travel for some hours to get there to undertake a course that is of dubious value and does not in any way address their problems at home or their lack of a job.
Perhaps the approach outlined in these amendments will set us on the road of understanding how narrow the Government's concept of offender management is, as presented to the Committee, whether it is end to end or beginning to end or wherever it begins and wherever it ends. The functions involved in rehabilitation are much wider and deeper than those summarised by offender management. It means very much more: it means doing deals with housing associations, getting good press coverage, going out to meet the public, getting the public involved and strengthening families so that they can give support. Offender management, as it is so expressed, would not enable people to get involved with the younger brothers of somebody who was in trouble to try to stop them taking that route. It means playing a part in strengthening a community so that the community can cope with its released ex-prisoners.
The amendments are a plea to broaden the concept of the Bill in those directions, and I wholeheartedly support them.